Found this in the Drafts from ca.2015. It seems to still hold true almost a decade later, so I’ve tidied it up and hit ‘Publish’.
The alt text of a well-known xkcd free speech comic reads:
I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.
I’ve read some really crappy comments recently trying to “debunk” this and criticise it, but apart from their own personal whining along the lines that they aren’t allowed to throw abuse at people, they never actually got around to criticising it. [note from 2023-Me, that 2015-Me did not leave any breadcrumbs about this]
In fact, they seemed to have largely missed the point.
The point is this: at no point ever should “freedom of expression” be the reason you want to be heard. It’s not a reason. It doesn’t matter if you’re discussing the moral implications or the legal ones, it’s not a reason to be heard. It’s a tautology: “I should be heard because I should be heard”. It argues for nothing, proves nothing, it is therefore not a reason.
Make no mistake, despite any of the most paranoid fantasies across the political sphere, we’re not suffering from a lack of free expression in the western world. We let all sorts of vile, disgusting, objectively harmful and damaging press be written and published and transmitted. Guilt-free, barrier-free, publish-and-be-damned, all is fair in love and free speech. A lack of free expression just isn’t a problem. We have plenty of freedom of speech to go around, and harping on about it literally proves nothing.
We probably lack responsibility and acknowledgement of the privilege of having a platform, but not the freedom.
Now imagine, just for a moment, that you are in a place that rigorously controls free expression. A place that legitimately and really clamps down on it. Examples exist out in the world; the aggressively authoritarianism of China, North Korea, or Florida for instance. Even then, the reason you need to be heard isn’t “because free speech”. How does that even follow? “We need free speech because speech should be free!” is the same useless tautology whether you have it or not.
No, That’s not the reason. If you’re stuck in a place with legally-limited and oppressed expression, the reason you need to speak out is usually the same reason your speech is suppressed – because it will hold the people in power to account.
If your message is “our leader tortures and mutilates people without trial in order to suppress political opposition”, the reason that needs to be heard isn’t “because I can” – the reason is because our leader tortures and mutilates people without trial in order to suppress political opposition. There is a reason for it to be heard. That speech has value. It needs to be said; not because it can but because it should. Freedom of expression is a means, not an end. And that’s because what you have to say can matter.
If your opinion is shit and valueless, I won’t give it undue respect or endorsement. I have no good reason to. I won’t pay to host it. I won’t waste my time listening to yet more of it.
And no, I won’t fight to the death to let you say it… what fucking idiot brings that old adage out of the blue, anyway? Who the hell wants to die just so someone can scream about how the Holocaust was fake on a park corner? I value life way too highly to end it over the sanctity of valueless opinions of dubious factual accuracy. If I need to trade my life, literally, for someone’s opinion, that opinion better damn well be worth it. I’ll defend speech I find the equivalent value in.
Perhaps, to pull an extreme example, Holocaust denial is an opinion that has some value – in which case, the person espousing it should be able to demonstrate that value to me. Is it true? Does the opinion benefit the world? Is my life improved upon hearing it? Are new truths brought to light by it? Please try and convince me of its value rather than complain that’s it’s merely your right to say it. I doubt you can, though: we live in a society that enshrines freedom of speech more than you’d like to admit, so I’m already familiar with such arguments, and it has been found wanting each and every time. I don’t need to pay travel expenses to hear it yet again.
If, literally, all you have to say in its defence is “but it’s freedom of expression”, then you’ve outright proven that you have no value to offer. And fuck it, life’s too short to waste worrying about things so worthless.
Your logic would play really well in Florida, they just have an opposed idea of what counts as “important” speech and what counts as worthless speech.